Interview - Val Kirby, head of landscape and geodiversity, Natural England

In October 2006 an amalgamation of the Countryside Agency, English Nature and Defra's Rural Development Service resulted in the founding of Natural England, an all-encompassing independent advisory body to the Government on landscape conservation in England.

Val Kirby, head of landscape and geodiversity, natural England - image: Alex Deverill
Val Kirby, head of landscape and geodiversity, natural England - image: Alex Deverill

According to Val Kirby, the body's head of landscape and geodiversity, bringing the three services under one roof has encouraged a more collective approach to tackling environmental issues, but the organisation's development is still a work in progress. "We are rewriting our strategic direction as the present one was written for the past four years, but times have changed," she says.

A structural review of the organisation means its 2,000-strong staff will have shrunk by 400 full-time equivalent positions by the time the revamp comes into effect in April. And with the 30 per cent savings the organisation has been asked to find by 2014, as part of the coalition Government's spending review, it could face a further 400 job losses over the coming financial year. Kirby says: "Our resources are very strictly limited so we are streamlining and looking at how we can better integrate areas of our work, particularly landscape and biodiversity concerns."

Despite the austere climate, Kirby, a qualified planner, chartered landscape architect and doctor of cultural geography, says she feels upbeat. "There is no point being gloomy," she says cheerfully. "There are some great opportunities out there at the moment as we have a very rare opportunity to influence Government and make it take notice."

She is referring to the input that Natural England has had on the upcoming Natural Environment white paper to be published by Defra next month. "I am pretty buoyant about what will come out of the paper because we are dealing with a Government that says it wants to be the greenest ever," Kirby says. "Of course, the reality of how we can have the greenest ever Government when there are so many cuts, combined with a move towards localism, does throw up questions, but we have a great dialogue going on," she adds.

Since it was set up, one of Natural England's key tasks has been to promote local engagement with the European Landscape Convention (ELC) - a set of commitments signed by the UK Government in 2006 aimed at raising awareness of landscape issues and ensuring standards relating to its planning, management and protection. Kirby says that by including details of the ELC in the white paper, Defra can demonstrate the Government's commitment to the environment. "We have been asked to suggest how the ELC could be referred to in the white paper, so I'm extremely optimistic about it," she says.

Kirby admits the convention principles can be time-consuming to understand and implement. This is why Natural England has produced a checklist for local authorities to see if they are adhering to it. "As resources have got tighter the interest in the checklist approach has increased because people just haven't got money or time to throw at new developments," she explains.

To make it easier for local authorities and other locally-run partnerships to find clear information on implementing green initiatives and protecting the natural environment, Kirby's department is developing an information database, scheduled for completion in 2012.

The database, which will be accessible through the organisation's website, will comprise information on England's 159 character areas. These profile assessments of geographical zones will describe their natural and agricultural character, drivers for environmental change and what impact climate change could have on the area. Local authorities and community networks will be able to log in and read about any environmental issues specific to their area.

Kirby says: "We want to promote green infrastructure initiatives on a local partnership level and give advice on how communities can achieve them. By sharing our information we can make sure that when people want to do the right thing they have access to clear information that tells them how to do it."

Despite these positive moves, Kirby is concerned by the continuing loss of England's biodiversity. Referring to recommendations made in an independent study on ecological networks published last year by Sir John Lawton, Kirby says there needs to be a broader understanding of how landscapes and biodiversity affect each other.

Once again she says Defra's white paper will hold a lot of answers. "We've been helping shape ideas around how to engage in ecological networks and how Lawton's recommendations can be reflected in the paper," she says. "We hope the paper will show a change of thinking and action. The Government can encourage local partnerships from the bottom up and then we will come in and back them up with the information they need to carry their plans through."

Kirby is hopeful these moves towards localism will give our landscape a fighting chance. "I hope there will be an understanding that the environment is the bedrock of human existence and we need it to support us," she says.

CV

1980-86: Landscape conservation officer, Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority

1986-98: Lecturer rising to head of landscape architecture department, Lincoln University, Canterbury, New Zealand

1998-99: Sole landscape architecture practitioner, Stroud, Gloucestershire

1999-2006: Numerous roles including project officer for Forest of Dean Integrated Rural Development Project, Countryside Agency

2006 to date: Principle landscape specialist then head of landscape and geodiversity, Natural England


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